NOAH ADAMS, host:
In New York City, over the last decade, the murder, rape and robbery rates have gone down drastically. But a smaller, so-called quality of life crime persists. And that's graffiti. Graffiti artists, or writers, or taggers, have a new tool: the etching acid being used by window glazers. It's the latest weapon in what NPR's Mike Pesca reports is the never-ending battle over graffiti.
MIKE PESCA reporting:
In ancient Rome, graffiti mocked politicians, advertised prostitutes, and simply announced Kilroyus Was Here. The decline of that civilization was literally brought about by vandals. These days it just seems that way, says New York City Councilman Peter Vallone, Jr.
Mr. PETER VALLONE, JR. (City Councilman, New York City): Nationally, it causes over $15 billion in damage. And now we've noticed that the new tool de jour is etching acid. I go out and clean graffiti once a week. You can't clean etching acid. You have to replace the whole window, which is a huge taxpayer expense.
PESCA: Vallone's initiatives includes sponsoring a law, which makes it illegal for anyone under the age of 21 to possess spray paint, broad tip markers or etching acid. This last substance, when mixed with shoe polish and smeared on subway windows, leaves an indelible mark. Vallone's possession ban was on the books for about four months before being thrown out by a judge, though the ban on etching acid stands, as does the prior law, which banned graffiti tools being sold to minors.
Criminologists will tell you that bans have no proven affect on rates of graffiti, because the implements are still available if you know where to look. Look around a subway car, and you'll see mostly pristine surfaces, except for the windows.
Mr. ERIC DEAL (Web Master, At 149th Street): Right now graffiti is like pretty dead on the subways, except for the acid stuff.
PESCA: Twenty-five years ago, Eric Deal was a graffiti artist. Now he runs a website called At 149th Street, which chronicles prominent taggers. In the late '80s, all subway cars with graffiti were pulled, cleaned, and when they were rotated back in service, the writers found their paint wouldn't stick. The graffiti-proof subway car changed the rules of the game.
But writers still found a way to get their names out there, lately through acid, before that by scratching it into the windows. Deal says these crude implements were accepted because, with graffiti, quantity trumps quality.
Mr. DEAL: The abundance, the quantity always supercedes style. You could be the most talented artist, and have the best style, and the most unique letter forms, and if you only do like one or two of them, you're going to get some respect, but really, really not much.
A guy who has a horrible handwriting, and has his name like on every single subway car, he's going to have way more respect than you do.
PESCA: Still, taggers try to sell the argument that graffiti is art. One writer, Tev One(ph), was standing outside a subway station in Lower Manhattan, literally selling it in the form of maps spray-painted with the words Graffiti Is Art. Tev One says he doesn't like etching acid because it's totally destructive, but admits he has engaged in scratchiti.
TEV ONE (Graffiti Artist): I consider that more like of a bombing. There's two different types of graffiti. There's bombing. And there's art. I was more of a bomb. It was more, the more of, the more better.
PESCA: And Tev One targeted his call to arms at one man.
TEV ONE: Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb. And tell Vallone I said so.
PESCA: In this cat and mouse game, it comes back to Peter Vallone, Jr., one inspiring cat to anyone who wants to write, scratch or burn his name into the commuters' consciousness. And while it's true that in raising the stakes, Councilman Vallone also raises his own profile. This year there have been about 1,000 graffiti-related arrests in the city.
It seems like there is a light at the end of this tunnel, still discernable through the scratches in acid blotting the train window.
Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.
ADAMS: NPR's DAY TO DAY continues. I'm Noah Adams.
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